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Tom Burton: who is the modern mandarin? An ever-evolving profession

The scholarly bureaucrats, known as the mandarins, who ruled China for over 1300 years from the sixth century, knew about the need to adapt public leadership to the needs of the times. During that period, China absorbed the period of European colonialism, digested evangelising Christianity, combated multiple invaders, while managing the biggest population of any nation known to humanity.

The role of Australia’s Mandarins — the public heads who lead our federal, state and local government departments, utilities, programs and regulators — has changed significantly from when prime ministerial permanent secretary Sir John Bunting, public service chief Allen Cooley, Treasury boss Fred Wheeler and Defence secretary Arthur Tange ruled Canberra in the 1960s and ’70s. Things were sorted by this small coterie often at lunch at the Commonwealth Club, down by the lake at Yarralumla.

These were the days of so-called fearless advice. Strong independent departmental secretaries who told ministers what they sometimes did not want to hear. In Canberra, and in the state capitals, ministers worked in small offices, with just one or two administrative staff, meaning the secretary had an almost exclusive role as adviser to their minister.

While the wives of the former (and mostly male) mandarins still play tennis at the Commonwealth Club, the role of the modern agency head has changed dramatically as the challenges of modern government have created a very different polity than the one when Bunting and co. ruled Canberra.

The most obvious change is today’s agency heads are no longer permanent. Five-year contracts are the norm, and in some cases far less when governments change and ministers look for leaders who can be their “choice” as portfolio chief. Current Treasury Secretary Martin Parkinson understands what that means as he serves time before a new appointment is made later this year after the Brisbane G20 meeting.

The rise of minority parties and independents, 24/7 news channels, radio shock jocks and more recently social media has created a far more unpredictable political environment. “Solutions” to complex problems are often quickly cooked up in the back offices of the sprawling ministerial wing of new Parliament House and thrown to agency heads to implement.

Last year’s ban on promoting sports betting during live football games is but a recent example. It’s what officials call dead cat policy – a stinking mess thrown over the bureaucratic fence for the public service to implement.

At a recent discussion with a group of senior New South Wales state officials, hosted by the Institute of Public Administration Australia, I was struck by the strong consensus that it was for ministers to divine policy and the role of the modern bureaucrat was to implement this policy in the most practical manner possible. Execution details may fashion the ultimate solution, but for this group the role of fearless policy advice a la Tange and co. has long gone.

The creation of the mega portfolios in the late ’80s was to promote linkages between often disparate functions, as well as creating administrative savings. But from a governance perspective they are a nightmare. Former industry portfolio chief Don Russell has recently spoken of the challenges of accommodating five ministers and their offices. At federal and state level agency heads often are balancing the personal and sometimes political differences — not to mention raw ambition — of multiple ministers.

The MO, as the ministerial offices are known, have also emerged as a powerful and far more politicised competition for the ear of the minister. These offices play at the front line of day-to-day political battles and media cycles. They communicate using instant messaging groups. The warp-speed decisions evident on almost any day in these offices is in stark contrast to the clunky, process obsessed, risk averse modus operandi of the big bureaucratic departments, regulators and agencies.

Neither is ideal, but the cultural chasm is deep and if anything widening, making the role of the secretary as the bridge between the two worlds even more challenging.

Russell, who also was senior adviser to prime minister Paul Keating, referred to the need for secretaries to re-assert their role as primary adviser. Not as a power play, but as a means of diversifying the advice ministers otherwise will get from the day-t0-day combative milieu they and their staff live in.

Many of these staff, and ex-ministers, move into the lobbying world. A company of any size these days typically has some sort of government affairs manager and often works with a lobbyist to manage their organisation’s government and regulatory affairs. Many are ex-state or national politicians and use their close personal and political relationships to access ministers and their advisers.

The recent NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption hearings involving ministers, advisers and lobbyists from both sides of politics reveal just how embedded the influence peddlers are in the governmental system.

At a practical level, for agency heads and their staff, this often means their key industry and community stakeholders are working two tracks to get a preferred result. In Canberra, “working the Hill” is a core part of the influence game, as can be witnessed on any day around the halls and corridors of Parliament.

This is not a new phenomena, but over the last decade the number of lobbyists has ballooned; 600 are now listed on on the federal register. Stakeholders are also far more demanding and transparent in their demands. This may be a function of the digital world where everyone has a megaphone, but whatever the reason there is now a shrillness to a lot of public campaigns which was not evident a decade ago.

In contrast, my observation is the bureaucracy is surprisingly largely left out of this influence game. The more savvy industry players have their contacts and relationships, but in the main the bureaucracy is largely sheltered from the high-pressure lobbying that is now so much part of the government process.

This may be a blessing for the integrity of the process, but also means public agencies and their many experts are sidelined from the main game and again left to simply implement the deal.

The digital revolution is also causing a major change within the public environment. Digital media lets agencies deal direct with their constituencies rather than working through traditional media. There have been some notable success stories — witness “Dumb Ways to Die” — of agencies embracing the opportunities of digital engagement. But while the tools and capabilities are now being developed, the willingness for officials to engage in an authentic and ongoing way that is implicit to digital media is at best patchy.

The old-school view of neither being seen or heard simply doesn’t work in the digital world, yet there are large sections of the senior public executive who openly avoid any public engagement. This is usually defended with arguments about needing to remain neutral and not being there to promote government policy, but in my view points to a risk averseness that is crippling the ability of public servants to be confident and relevant players in the new digital era.

The problem starts at the top where there is a conspicuous lack of agency heads willing to put themselves out to be part of the public debates now so much part of the day-to-day digital landscape. Bureaucracies being as they are, secretaries and heads set the permissions and cultures of their agencies. And until the leaders change, their executives and underlings will simply replicate their leaders and avoid public engagement.

This in turn points to a far bigger challenge. Returning to Canberra over the last years as an insider, it struck me just how unchanged the DNA of government was. Parliament House looks and feels like a GPS finishing school, on all sides of politics. Barely an Asian or African to be seen, young urban professionals everywhere, and the number of sons, daughters, nephews and nieces of my political generation was palpable.

In the central agencies and departments it felt like time had passed by. At a personal level, the culture and people are innately courteous and highly committed, professional to an inch of their life, and a million miles from the silliness of the archetype of the fat cat that is so ridiculously perpetuated by some media. But this veneer of competency masks a ’70s uniformity that goes to the heart of one of the great challenges for our public leadership. White-bred, uniformed in neat business attire, housed in monotonous and vast open-plan cubicles, it feels like the great diversity that now marks modern Australia has passed by Canberra’s public institutions.

No where is this more obvious than the senior executive service that lead the agencies, where almost without exception the jobs are filled by life-long public servants. Unlike NSW and Victoria, the SES are almost all permanent appointments and over time this has lead to an insularity and a way of thinking that dominates policy making. Whereas in Victoria, and now under an ambitious reform program in NSW, the SES has been opened up to outsiders from the commercial and not-for-profit world, the national agencies remain strangely cloistered. This is amplified by the seclusion that comes from Canberra being largely isolated from the vagaries of the big metropolitan centres.

This in turn has led to a serious disconnect between business and the bureaucracy. It still staggers how naive and ignorant many business executives are of government and its processes, even in the many sectors whose bottom line is heavily dictated by government rules and franchises. This searing gap is not one as a nation with ambitions to punch above its weight we can afford.

The Americans deal with this issue by flushing out large slabs of their upper bureaucracy when presidents change. This has politicised the system, but at least ensures the DNA is turned over.

The most visible example of this monoculture in the upper levels of the Canberra senior executive is the manner in which modern management practice seems to have passed them by. Whereas in the commercial world there has been a near revolution in management practices and service delivery and improved productivity — much of it underpinned by technology — the practices and processes of one of Australia’s largest workforces, the Australian Public Service, feel more like those of nearly 25 years ago.

Hugely hierarchical and risk averse, obtuse accountabilities, poorly articulated performance metrics, archaic and duplicative work practices, and an obsession with process have all fused to be a cancer to any ambition for achieving an agile and relevant public sector, ready to lead Australia into potentially its most dynamic era.

This is a systemic issue and is not a criticism or directed at any one agency, but does necessitate a very different leadership — one capable of being effective in a far less certain and more ambiguous world. This challenge has to include a significant transformation, as the public sector inevitably diminishes in size, in response to falling revenue receipts, but also public demands to confirm the value of their efforts. As the Commission of Audit found, it is near impossible to determine the value of many of the programs undertaken — which means cabinets have little real data to make the priority calls on taxpayer funds. And in this information gap the vested interest groups are easily able to “work the hill”, leaving agencies and their leaders further isolated.

There are some obvious examples of larger scale culture change worth considering — the transformation of the work cultures of the two big former government agencies, the Commonwealth Bank and Telstra, have a lot to recommend. Similarly the work underway in the NSW government.

Instinctively breaking down the uniformity and one-size-fits-all approach from work conditions to procurement, and the raft of over-zealous centralised controls, would give the leaders of agencies much greater independence to create appropriate organisations for the the tasks required. While there are administrative efficiencies from group approach, the big prize is to build an innovative, diverse and energetic culture ready to grasp the opportunities that the Asian century and digital era are presenting. This implies less centralised control and letting agency leaders get on with their jobs. The Pentagon-like approach may be a useful way to win the war, but this uniformity has created an administrative culture that is struggling to be relevant for a modern Australia.

This transformation challenge and many other themes relevant to the leaders of our public agencies is what we hope to explore as we build a place for considered and insightful debate, showcasing the best of Australia’s public policy, programs and projects and exploring the issues and challenges of being a leader in Australia’s many public agencies.

Tell us what you think the role of the modern mandarin is, and more importantly should be?

Author Bio

Tom Burton

Tom Burton is publisher of The Mandarin based in Melbourne. He has served in various public administration roles, specialising in the media and communications sector. He was a Walkley Award-winning journalist and executive editor of The Sydney Morning Herald. He worked as Canberra bureau chief for the Australian Financial Review and as managing editor of smh.com.au. He most recently worked at the Australian Communications and Media Authority.